Abbas' dangerous gamble
The head of the PLO negotiating team, Saeb Erekat, was first to jump to his feet in enthusiasm during yesterday's speech by Mahmoud Abbas at the Muqata in Ramallah. He was immediately joined by dozens of other Fatah people, who were responding to Abbas' announcement of his intention to hold early elections. But Abbas held up his hand. Not so fast. "I have spoken with the Central Election Committee on a date for the elections," Abbas said, "and I am still negotiating over a unity government." It sounded like the old Abbas. Without a specific date, the election declaration seemed like an empty threat against Hamas.
Still, if negotiations with Hamas fail, Abbas will have backed himself into a corner. If he does not name a date within a few weeks, he will appear weak. But he needs the agreement of Hamas for a date, and that does not seem to be in the offing. Even if Hamas only sits on the fence, without its participation, elections will be meaningless. If Hamas does not agree to elections, it will also mean renewed Qassam fire on Sderot, and an invitation for the Israel Defense Forces to operate in Gaza, which in any case will make elections out of the question.
Hamas is not Abbas' only trouble. The Fatah Central Committee has made clear it does not want early elections, because its chances of gaining a majority of the parliament are thin, and Abbas will have trouble winning the chairmanship against the popular prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. Moreover, Palestinian law requires the PA chairman to resign close to the time a date for elections is set. The speaker of the PA parliament, Aziz Duek, of Hamas, now in an Israeli prison, would be appointed in his stead. Abbas would be giving the chairmanship on a silver platter to Hamas on the day he sets the election date.
The presence at the Muqata of men in black was marked. They are the presidential guard, an upgraded version of the old Arafat-era Force 17. The new generation of presidential bodyguards is well-trained and well-armed. The United States invested heavily in this group, which will lead the fighting against Hamas if civil war breaks out.
And yet despite everything that has gone on in the territories over the past few days, civil war is not at all certain. Fear of it is deeply ingrained in the consciousness of Palestinians, and they have always known how to avoid it. Yesterday, violence broke out again in the Gaza Strip; the events of the coming days will apparently dictate the policy of the politicians.
The shooting attack on Haniyeh's convoy Thursday is a good example. Haaretz has learned that Haniyeh was about a kilometer from the car that was hit. And although Hamas claims its member killed in the incident was sitting beside Haniyeh during the attack, foreign TV crews documented a Hamas activist reporting that the dead man was a member of the "operational forces" and not a bodyguard.
The Hamas claim of an assassination attempt engineered by Mohammed Dahlan seems doubtful. Why would Dahlan and Abbas choose the Rafah crossing, which is under their security aegis, for assassination? But none of that was important once Al Jazeera had reported dramatically on the failed hit.
The next day, at his appearance at the weekly Hamas rally, Haniyeh seemed encouraged and reassured. While Khaled Meshal called from Damascus to avoid civil war, Haniyeh said in Gaza that the Hamas leaders preferred martyrs' deaths to cabinet portfolios. "We will know how to deal with those who shot at me," he said.
Dahlan himself was in the first row at the Muqata, whispering with Erekat during Abbas' hour and 40-minute address. He was in no hurry to return to Gaza. Meanwhile, thousands of Fatah supporters rallied at Dahlan's house in Gaza, calling for the deaths of Hamas leaders if even a hair on Dahlan's head were to be harmed. At the end of Abbas' speech, attention focused on Dahlan. "Hamas doesn't scare anyone," he said confidently to the media microphones. Erekat, noticing the knot of people around Dahlan, hurried over. One of those present said, "Erekat always knew how to get close to the president or the individual who would become president."
Israel is following developments warily. As long as events do not lead to renewed attacks on the Negev, Israel will not respond. The decision to stop Haniyeh from returning to Rafah with some $30 million Thursday was made under U.S. pressure, out of what looked like an urgent need to take advantage of an opportunity. Israel will keep its fingers crossed for Abbas, and after months of talks, may let the old men of the PLO's Bader Brigade in from Jordan. In any case, in Gaza, at least in the appraisal of the Israel Defense Forces, Hamas is stronger and has more public support.
In the West Bank, at least for the moment, the situation seems reversed. As far as most Palestinians are concerned, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have been almost completely severed since the outbreak of the second intifada. A violent internal conflict may hasten their break-up into two nearly separate political entities.